When children and teens ask about news headlines, it is a wonderful opportunity to provide filtered age-appropriate information for younger children. And for teens, it's a chance to get into a moral discussion without coming across as preachy. Here are some age-appropriate suggestions for answering "What is crack cocaine?"
These are suggested age ranges but please adjust the discussion based on the maturity level of your child.
In this age-range, there is no need to bring up news headlines unless the children ask. If they do ask, always be honest, but damper it down depending on the child's age and comprehension skills. The goal is to be truthful but not scary.
I like using the word "dizzy" at this age because little ones might be able to understand that best. We introduced this term in association with alcohol back when they asked, "What is beer? What are you drinking? Can I have that too?"
We replied, "Beer and wine have something in it that makes people a bit dizzy. If you have a little to drink, you get a little dizzy which can be fun, if you have a lot to drink, you get a lot dizzy and the part of your mind that tells you to make good decisions can stop working." We then model drinking one or two drinks in front of the kids. As we live near a University, we have ample opportunity to point out young adults who have had too much and have become way too dizzy.
For drugs, explain that there is something called "drugs" and if they can handle it, the difference between legal (prescribed to you from a doctor) and non-legal drugs. You can refer to those as ones that are "medicine" and ones that "are not medicine." Use the word "dizzy" to explain the effects, and "jail" to talk about consequences. I suggest using the word "penalty" to explain what happens to people who make a mistake and end up using a "bad drug" — "If someone uses a bad drug, the penalty is very serious. The person can be taken away from home and put into jail." You might have to describe jail as a kind of time-out where the person has to be away for some time and then can go back home.
Again, be truthful but do not scare them. Not many children are experimenting with drugs at this age so you can periodically ask if anyone at school has mentioned drugs, and make sure to not freak out if they happen to answer "yes."
Start the discussion about what drugs are and their effects. Most schools do address this topic in this age-range. It is important at this age to set the tone with your kids that they could confess anything to you and you would stay calm. Yes, there might be some consequences to their actions, but you will hear them and be rational.
I asked junior-high and high-school teacher Leah Schmalenberg to offer her advice on speaking about this with teens. She said, "I have over 100 young people asking me those questions every day. I think parents should answer as scientifically and factually as possible, followed by a moral discussion. Teaching Health Ed, I use that approach—science and fact first so the teens know the truth, then a follow-up discussion based on their family's values."
Do you and your partner know your family's values? This would be a great time to discuss these and make sure all adults in the family are on the same page.
Headlines like the one mentioned above are a wonderful opportunity to have a deep conversation with your teens about the morality of taking drugs without coming across as being on their case, nosey, or preachy. It is VERY important to be honest about the headlines, and at this age, it's okay to be a little scary.
Take an approach that discusses all the negative things that could happen. Try comments like this, "Have you heard about what is happening with the mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford? We can't assume the drug allegations are true until they have proven to be, but wow, is it super serious if they are? Wouldn't it be a shame for him to have to lose the job he seems to really like? AND he would probably have to go to jail? He still is so young and has a wife and children—let's hope this isn't true. Jail is a horrible place! And you know what, after people get out of jail, for even small things, it sucks that they can't travel out of the country. (Why?) Because you won't be able to get a passport—can you imagine not being able to go to anywhere in the States? Or the rest of the world? EVER!"
It is important to get the teen's brain firing by asking questions that get them to imagine consequences or how something will feel; "How do you think it would feel to never be able to go to Florida if all your friends go there for study break? Or down the road, if you got a great job opportunity out of the country but had to turn it down—this kind of thing sticks with you for life."
This is also an excellent opportunity to talk about how social media affects this story, and how to be safe with social media. "I guess you have to expect that whatever you do—drinking, drugs, piling too many kids into a car, is going to end up on camera." Talk about specific strategies to be safe and stay rational.
You can also use this as a chance to discuss your regrets about over-drinking or if you experimented or used drugs. But please don't gross your kids out with too much information! Use an anecdote about being scared, feeling out of control, panicked, or a moment where you decided enough was enough.
If you would like some book recommendations on this topic, I will post links to those on my facebook page.
Andrea Nair is a former junior-high and high-school teacher, now psychotherapist and parenting educator.